Supernatural, Suomi Style

Freelance journalist received a strange job offer: cover a supernatural convention. The journalist thinks the gig a joke. But is it? And who are the convention’s guests of honor?

Supernatural, Suomi Style

By Richard Zowie

I live in San Antonio, and that’s a good thing. Plenty of time to think as I drove to El Paso, which is an eight-hour drive. I’m a full-time freelance writer, and one of my clients is the San Antonio Express-News. I write mostly features for my editor, Mona De Los Santos, who told me they wanted me to cover a supernatural convention in El Paso. It was for this weekend. I would go, observe, ask questions, take a few pictures, write a 2,000-word article and it would be the lead feature in the Weekender on Friday or for the Life section on Sunday.

As I drove past San Antonio’s outer circular road, Loop 1604, on Interstate 10 West and started my trek into the Texas Hill Country, I remembered the protocol. Since I wasn’t an employee, my travel expenses would have to be written off and claimed on taxes. Gasoline. Drinks. Snacks. Food. Motel room. The cost of attending the convention, which was $500.

As I saw a green sign that said Boerne was 20 miles away and Comfort was 40 miles, I remembered Mona’s request.

“I think it’s a fascinating convention, but management didn’t want someone local covering it when the El Paso Times could easily assign a reporter that we could piggyback off of,” she said. But, the Times told us they were only planning on doing a few photos and no story. That’s why I decided to ask you. What is your religious background, Bill?”

“I’m a Christian, but I’m not sold on supernatural,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts. I used to rent an apartment that was a boarding house where an unsolved murder took place, but I never experienced anything unusual.”

“No supernatural experiences?”

“Zero.”

“Can you go with an open mind?” she asked.

“If you’re paying me, yes.”

 

I’d left San Antonio at 6 a.m. that morning, which was wonderful. By the time I-10 became clogged for the morning commute, I was gone. With the stops I made in Junction, Fort Stockton, Van Horn, I arrived nearly at 6 p.m. in the desert town of El Paso. I’d been there only a few times in my life, once as I drove to Phoenix on business and once as I took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles to visit my Uncle Jerry.

After checking in at the Double Tree Hotel about two blocks away, I went to the El Paso Convention and Performing Art Center, where the supernatural convention was taking place. I expected to see a few science-minded protestors outside, yelling about facts matter over faith. The only people outside were tourists looking for the Southwest University Park, El Paso Museum of History or the University of Texas at El Paso. One complete stranger asked me if El Paso was in Texas or New Mexico. I told him he was still in the Lone Star State.

One beautiful woman wearing a sundress asked me how El Paso got its nickname “Chucotown.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish and have no idea. You should ask someone at the Museum of History,” I replied as I entered.

I expected people adorned in black clothing and silver jewelry, along with priests or priestesses wearing shiny black or indigo robes. Instead, everyone wore suits or dressed in slacks or dress shirts. One woman wore a business suit with a short skirt. From her legs, I imagined she ran a lot and probably looked hard to turn away from when she sat and crossed her legs.

I checked in, introduced myself as Bill McGinnis and got my badge and packet. As I got them, I noticed a brunette with pale eyes helping herself at a spread of various pastries, meats, fruits and assorted dressings. Soon, she was coughing.

As she coughed, I looked up and saw panic in her eyes. I jogged toward her. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

She looked at me, tried to breathe. “PLEASE! HELP ME!” she said in English but in a foreign accent I could not place. “I…can’t…breathe! I’m choking! Help!”

As I dropped my packet and was about 10 feet away, I noticed how everybody stared blankly at her, as though they didn’t know what to do.

What is wrong with you assholes? I wondered as I got to her from behind and embraced her. “I’m going to do a Heimlich Maneuver. Try not to panic. You won’t die.”

“Ok, I won’t.” As she briefly turned around, I could see her pale eyes were a mix of gray and green. She had a soapy smell, as if she had just showered a few hours ago. Her accent…I still couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t Russian or German. She looked like she was from a cold-weather country, with her pale features.

On the third thrust, the dark-brown, partially-chewed piece roast beef flew out of her mouth toward the crowd. A few screams as some scampered out of the way. Several people had their cell phones out and were recording the incident, which really pissed me off. What is with Americans and their need to record everything?

She took several deep breaths as her color returned. She turned, smiled at me and gave me a hug. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You saved my life. I am Ailukka Korhonen.”

I told her my name. “That’s a pretty accent you have. Where are you from?”

“Finland.”

I was amazed at how well she spoke English when a man came out of a bathroom and headed to us. He wore blue jeans and wore a blue polo shirt with a white flag with a left-of-center blue cross on it. Underneath the flag was the word “SUOMI.” I had no idea what that meant.

He had blond hair and blue eyes and went up to her and hugged her and said something to her I could not understand. She pointed to me.

“Are you the man who just saved my wife’s life?” he asked me. He spoke with far less of an accent, as if he’d been speaking English for a long time.

I nodded, thinking of how strange things seemed to be — and the convention hadn’t even started yet.

He offered his hand. I shook it and found his grip to be firm. “My name is Hannu Korhonen.”

I noticed a few people still recording.

“What is wrong with you people? Why did you just stand there?” I demanded, upset but trying not to lose my cool. “Couldn’t you see she was choking and asking for help?”

One man, who had just turned off his phone, shook his head. “We heard her, all right, but none of us could understand her. She was speaking in a foreign language.”

“No, she wasn’t,” I said. “She’s from Finland, but I could understand her English just fine.”

Everybody became silent.

“You say my wife asked for your help in English?” Hannu asked me.

“Yes, sir. She has a strong accent, but I could understand her.”

Hannu said something in Finnish to Ailukka. She shook her head.

“My wife says there must be a mistake. She doesn’t speak English, but she said you were speaking Finnish to her.”

“Hannu, I don’t see how that could be possible. I don’t speak Finnish, not even to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

The man who had just shut off his recording came up to us and played the recording. It showed Ailukka choking and me coming up to her to do the Heimlich.

Then the dialogue.

“Voinko auttaa sinua?” My voice, without a doubt.

“OLE KILTTI! AUTA MINUA! En … voi … hengitä! Olen tukehtumassa! Auta!”

“Aion tehdä Heimlich-säätimen. Yritä olla paniikkia. Et kuole.” My voice yet again, this time saying things I didn’t understand.

“Ok, en.”

“Kiitos paljon. Pelastit henkeni. Olen Ailukka Korhonen.”

“Olen Bill McGinnis. Se on melkoinen aksentti. Mistä olet kotoisin?”

“Suomi.”

She’d said Finland to me, I’m absolutely sure, but now, she was saying Suomi.

“Hannu, what does ‘Suomi’ mean?” I asked.

“That’s how we say ‘Finland’ in the Finnish language.”

For five minutes, I had no idea what to say. Finally, I took down as many names and phone numbers as I could as I pulled out my phone, turned on the recorder and asked questions to as many eyewitnesses, including the Finnish couple. The convention hadn’t even started yet, but I already had my story.

Post comments here or send them to richardzowie@gmail.com

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Working with police as a journalist

In the past 10 years as a journalist, I’ve dealt with various police departments. Some are unfailingly polite. Some are even more difficult to contact than the President of the United States. Some require you to pay for police reports while some won’t even let you look at those reports without a Freedom of Information Act request.

A friend who has retired from the journalism business tells me it’s very difficult to build a successful working relationship with the police and very easy, with even one bad article, to tear down a relationship that took years to build.

Twice in my life (I won’t say exactly when), I’ve written stories about sensitive matters and have been asked by my police source to keep a few items off the record. I complied, but another newspaper did not. When a newspaper publishes sensitive information that can compromise a police case, it can be devastating for the police and can result in them never wanting to work with you again.

More recently, I had a disagreement with an officer about his procedures for dealing with the media. However, since then I’ve worked with this officer on one case. He told me there was no update on the case, and when I guessed why there was no update, he told me I was probably correct but asked that I not publish that. I complied.

You know you’re making progress on the police beat when your source tells you, when you’re talking to him or her in private, to call them by their first name.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

 

A day in the life of Richard Zowie, writer or: One Day in the Life of Richard Richardovich

I couldn’t resist paying homage to the late Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by naming this blog posting the way he did his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Russian: Odin Dyen’ Ivana Denisovicha). No, I’m not in a Russian gulag, although in the winter here in Michigan it might seem that way.

My middle name is actually Paul, but in Russian the middle name is actually the patronymic, meaning a name that identifies your lineage. Richardovich simply means “Son of Richard” since my Dad’s name is Richard. Dad, whose own father went by Paul, would be Richard Pavlovich (the Russians transliterate Paul as Pavel).

The one or two readers of this blog might wonder a writer like me does on a daily basis. Since Monday’s the day I complete my assignments for the week, I thought I’d take you through a typical Monday:

7:30 a.m. — I wake up and thank the person who designed cell phones to have alarm clocks in them. I try to avoid hitting the snooze button. Shower, something to eat, quick check of e-mail and reminding myself of what I have to do this day.

8:15 a.m. — I drive to work and try to keep observant of what’s said on the radio and what I see as I drive into the coverage area of the paper where I work, the Mt. Morris/Clio Birch Run/Bridgeport Herald.

9 a.m. — I arrive at work, pick up any messages left for me, drop off my time card and my mileage sheet to my publisher’s wife (Lisa) and, again, check my e-mail.

9:15 a.m. — Time to get together with my editor (Craig) and co-worker (Mandi) for a meeting to discuss what we have for the paper that week. This includes what is finished and what we’re still working on.

9:25 a.m. – 5 p.m. — My tasks include but are not limited to: finishing writing stories, proofreading them, making changes as necessary and then e-mailing them to my editor; taking photos and editing out the bad ones. I gather up my photos for the week onto a jump drive and deliver them to my editor. I write cutlines for all the photos. If I submit a set of photos from an event, I make sure it’s accompanied by a short story. Sometimes I may have to go out and take more pictures or gather information for another story. I try to make sure the photos I submit are whittled down to the absolute best of the best. If I take 50 pictures of an event, my job is to submit no more than 10 photos (preferably five) to my editor since it takes time to sift through the photos.

The stories and cutlines and word documents are e-mailed to my editor while, again, the photos go on the jump drive.

Any further unfinished stories, cutlines or other items go home as “homework.” During the busy traffic of the high school sports season (especially during basketball/baseball/track in the spring), I usually don’t get to bed until past midnight.

6 p.m. — I get home, eat dinner, find out how everyone’s day went and–yep, you guessed it–check e-mail.

7 p.m. — I start brainstorming for next week’s issue and then update my blogs. I also piddle around on Facebook (a great way to promote my blogs). Other writing projects (journals, fiction, essays) also get done, along with answering e-mails and looking for off-duty freelance work (writing work I do at home on my own time).

9 p.m. — I watch something on television or watch a movie I rented from Netflix. Favorite shows currently are Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, The Middle.

11 p.m. — Bed. (Earlier, if possible, if I have to go to work at the gas station the next morning and have a 5 a.m. wake up).

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Dealling with ‘The Wildie Syndrome’

Years ago, I was assigned to write a story about a man who’d developed a device that would collect recycled oil and store it, saving local people from having to make a trip to an auto parts store. The article must be no more than 700 words, the editor told me.

So I went and interviewed the guy, five or so questions at hand and explained to him that all I needed were basic answers. We were doing a short article, so we would not be able to run anything more than just the basics.

The man proceeded to talk for about an hour.

His surname was Wildie, and in the other two times I interviewed him, the same thing happened: I’d explain to him about how we had only enough room for the basics. He’d then go on to ramble for an hour or so. The final time I spoke with him, my editor told me not to take too long.

“You do realize whom I’ll be speaking to, right?” I asked. “Even if I try to nudge him forward, he’ll go back and talk on and on and on.”

Occasionally, I still have interview subjects like this. When it happens, I call it “The Wildie Syndrome”.

I’m curious if any other writers have had to deal with this also. One assistant editor I worked with spent three hours doing an interview with a bloviating man, and spent the entire next day just transcribing it with a dictionary at hand…

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based journalist, columnist, blogger and aspiring fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

My Writer’s Digest subscription has been renewed!

Jane Friedman

A very special, grateful, humble “Thank you” goes to Jane Friedman, the publisher of Writer’s Digest. After reading my earlier blog post about how I wasn’t able at this time to renew my subscription to her magazine, she then e-mailed me and offered me a complimentary, one-year subscription renewal!

This generosity was very unexpected (I’d actually made my posting more to chronicle what’s going on in my writing life) but is very appreciated.

Again, thank you for your nice gift, Ms. Friedman! I think of it as a birthday present (I’ll turn 37 in February). What I will probably do is take the tax return money I’d planned to use to renew my subscription to instead upgrade to the VIP program.

Richard Zowie has been a professional writer since 2000. He’s been a journalist, columnist, blogger, copy writer and even fiction writer. Post comments below or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.